The best way to hide a red mouth is to know exactly when your gums start to bleed. If you check your teeth every so often with a quick swipe of the tongue, and you get a bit of that saltiness, you’ll learn to take a swig from a canteen and rinse before anyone else notices. The weeps are a little harder. Most of us wear tinted goggles when we ride at the barrier. They keep solar glare low, of course, but they also let you feel when your tear ducts leak, because the blood collects at the bottom of the rims. That and a dark handkerchief, and you can clean yourself up as needed, no problem. As for the tremors, everyone has a different approach. I’ve heard some folks stick their hands in their pockets, others gesture wildly so people don’t focus on the shaking.
But no matter how well you hide the signs, there’ll never be an easy way to get rid of the bottles. They clink against your wedding ring when you hold one in your hand, clatter against each other when you store them in your rucksack. You can’t pile them in with the refuse, because then they’re out there for the whole world to see. Instead, you’ll start to hide them—empties, half-empties—in closets, on high shelves, so many you’ll forget and sometimes surprise yourself, when you’re looking for a place to put away another.
The day your mother almost caught me, I was burying bottles behind the barn. I heard her calling from the porch, and I covered the hole with dirt. She didn’t ask what I was doing, but I told her I was evening out a patch that wasn’t level.
“You didn’t come home last night,” she said, and I smiled with a closed mouth, not knowing how my gums looked just then.
“Patrol ended late, so I slept at the barrier house.”
She shielded her eyes from the creeping sunrise and tilted her head the way she did whenever she was troubled. “I know you’re on duty until the end of the week, but even just that hour before bed means a lot to Jojo if you can make it. He misses his daddy.”
My head felt swollen and ready to burst, and I could barely hold my back straight, so I wasn’t going to argue. I gave a small nod and said I’d try my best.
“Have you . . .” your mother trailed off, and for a second I thought she’d seen a glint of one of the bottles in the dirt and was going to ask about them. “Have you heard about any incursions?”
“What?” I laughed, as relieved as I was confused by the question. “Not for months now. Why?”
“Jojo couldn’t sleep because he thought something got in the barn. Said he heard hissing, and it kept him up half the night, poor guy.”
“Well . . .” I looked over at the barn and swallowed. “Nothing there this morning. And nobody’s getting past the barrier while we’re out there, you can tell him that.”
Your mother tilted her head again, and, if she was going to say something else, she decided not to bother. Instead, she asked if I’d stay for breakfast. I told her I couldn’t, that I was just stopping by for a few things before the day shift started, and she walked me to my bike and waited while I put on my goggles and jacket.
“You be safe out there,” she said.
I gave another closed-mouth smile, then revved and pulled the bike off to the road, waving over my shoulder as I sped off toward the dust plains.
The ride out past the neighboring farms gave me time to clear my head, and the cool rush of air helped soothe some of the pounding behind my eyes. By the time I reached the gateway, Danny was already leaning on his bike and ready for the day. I pulled in my cycle real close, letting it hover next to his.
“Where’s Cooper?” I unlocked the control panel and brushed the dirt off of the keypad.
“He wasn’t feeling too hot after last night. Think he’s sitting out a shift.”
“So they’re letting us two-man it?” After I punched in our passcode, the metal doors jerked apart at an uneven pace, rattling over the grit and gravel in the barrier tracks.
“They don’t give a shit.” Danny spat, and I saw red hit the dirt. He drove ahead, floating through the threshold, and I followed, keeping an eye on the doors in my mirrors until the gateway was shut again behind us.
I’m sure they’ve told you this in school, but the sky out there is smokier and greener than it is in the settlement, without the filter of the barrier to give it that bluish hue. Out in the uncovered lunar territory, it’s more swirls of white over a pale emerald, and it’s not half bad scenery when you’re patrolling, watching the vapors collect along the aretes and form spiral patterns as they’re blown about by belching geysers.
A few hours went by that morning before we finally pulled over, and Danny waved his arms and pointed to an outcrop a few miles away. I squinted until I saw what he did, the clew, hovering near a rock formation, like a massive sphere of darkness that always reminded me of dangling fruit. We assembled our long guns, and Danny was already in the dirt, lining up his scope and peering out at the cluster before I was close to done.
I watched him grab a glistening brown bottle from his pack, twist the cap off, and take a deep swallow. He held it out to me, but I declined. I’ve heard that it’s important to set boundaries when it comes to plasma, and one of mine was that I didn’t take any before the afternoon. Danny knew that, of course, but he always liked to push me now and again, for his own amusement, I think.
“Okay,” he chuckled. “Well, it’ll be here when you need it.” He set its sweaty glass body on the ground between us. “You want the first shots?”
“Sure,” I whispered as I peered through the scope. I could just barely see the enlarged image of the swimming skyworms—what your textbooks probably call glyconids—that made up the clew, slithering around each other like little sine waves and using the skin flaps on their sides to glide on the gusts and maneuver on the gas streams.
My shots rang out over the flatland, and I saw one or two worms tumble to the dirt. But after I fired a few more times, they started to catch on. The dark sphere of the clew opened up with little holes as they dodged, anticipating the bullets. Their foresight, what the docs at the front used to call prolepsis, always made it hard to get the jump on them after they figured out where the fire was coming from. And I was already too sluggish and sloppy to hope to get more than just a couple.
“My turn.” Danny snuggled up to his rifle with a giddiness that meant he already felt the plasma pumping in his veins. He fired in rapid bursts, each bullet blasting parts off a skyworm here or there, one after another. Their wailing in the distance was quiet, but I could see them rain to the ground as Danny tore through clusters of them, like he was shredding a paper target. The clew started unraveling as the worms changed formation, but they still managed to weave around a few of Danny’s shots and hold their position.
“Come on,” Danny kept his eye on his scope and tapped the bottle in the dirt. “I could use the help. And it’s almost noon anyhow.”
He was right. The sun was almost overhead, and with the size and distance of the clew, it’d be risky to let him try and pick them off himself. I could keep stumbling my way through without the plasma, or I could take it and make myself useful. It wasn’t quite breaking the rules, in my mind—more like bending them to meet the moment.
The first sip I took that morning, like all of them, was crisp and bitter; my eyes and throat got that pleasant warmth the plasma brings, and I could feel my arms relaxing as it spread through my body.
I put my eye to the scope and started firing off rounds again, but this time, I had that certainty of where things were without having to think too carefully. I could anticipate the movement of the world, how the vapors would form and the dirt would shift from the wind. It’s hard to describe to someone who’s never had plasma before, but for a brief second, it’s like you see the ghost of possibilities all at once, until they intertwine and focus, and you’re left with the curve of the most probable path, the one you’re almost certain is going to unfold. Just like you always know where to put your mitt when I throw you the ball, you know? When I have plasma, I’m ready for whatever comes at me.
I focused on the clew and followed a fat worm, at least twenty feet long. It slinked its way to the edge of the group, and, though I could sense that it might dive, I knew it was going to leap sideways instead, so I shifted at the last second when I pulled the trigger. I saw the bright red splatter like a wet firework as its head exploded.
We were on even footing with the worms now, predicting their predictions and adjusting our shots. Danny and I must have reloaded a half dozen times, and I didn’t even notice how much time had passed, or that I had reached over and taken a few more sips.
We were making good headway, with the clew beginning to dissipate, when I saw a shape hidden in the writhing mass, longer and larger than most.
“King!” I yelled at Danny, and I swear that worm turned its giant, red eye toward me. I jerked away from my scope, and when I looked again, the King had burrowed into the ground, gone as quickly as it had come.
I’ve probably told you a hundred times, but Kings are a lot smarter than regular skyworms. They understand that a shot from us can’t be probable if it becomes impossible. So if the Kings sense things are turning, they’ll disappear out of range faster than we can fire at them. That’s, of course, better than the alternative. If they ever charge, then you know, that they know, that your odds aren’t good. I’ve seen it go both ways on the front, and that day we just happened to get lucky.
“Guess he didn’t want a fight,” Danny laughed.
I wiped the sweat from my forehead and kept on firing. Eventually, the rest of the clew broke apart, and the skyworms flew off in a hundred different directions. They’d probably regroup in a few hours at another hotspot where they could feed on gasses, but they’d go farther away from the settlement since we’d done our part. I started to pack away my long gun, while Danny kept shooting at the stragglers, long after it was necessary.
“Got ’em.” He turned and gave me a bloodstained grin.
• • • •
We continued on our route, our cycles slicing through walls of vapor and blowing trails of dust behind us, until about halfway around the perimeter, when we came across a patrol from another barrier house. I recognized one of them, a guy named Thrush, who worked the front with me during the expansion, so we pulled over to split a bottle and shoot the shit for a little while.
One of Thrush’s men, a young guy, kept to himself on his bike and waited off from the group. He was fidgeting with a rosary and muttering under his breath, beads of sweat rolling off his brow way too quickly, even for the heat we were in.
“He okay?” I asked, sipping from my canteen and pointing out Thrush’s patrolman.
“Oh, yeah,” Thrush looked over. “Pete’s just a little antsy. Can’t get the feeling back in his hand. Worried he’s got the rot.”
Danny clicked his tongue and handed me the bottle. “Ah, he’s not old enough. You gotta drink for decades to get that kind of nerve damage.”
That was something we’d always say whenever one of our guys was worried about tingling in his toes or swelling in his fingers, but we all knew it wasn’t as true as it used to be. You probably remember seeing, during our trips into town, those folks, not all of them old-timers, who’d lost an arm or leg to the rot. The docs think it has something to do with our generation growing up with more plasma than our parents, which makes sense. Around here, someone will put a gun in your hand, and then a bottle, pretty much as soon as you’re old enough to earn.
“Kid!” Danny took off his goggles and dabbed his eyes with his handkerchief. “Relax and have a drink. If it’s the rot, you’re fucked anyway, so don’t get worked up.”
The young guy ignored him and kept on muttering.
“Suit yourself.” Danny licked his teeth and spat before turning back to Thrush. “Listen. Not to add to your problems, but we spotted a King slithering out west. Hopefully it’s nothing, but I’d go slow and keep an eye out.”
“No shit.” Thrush grabbed binoculars from his belt and looked out at the vapors, as if he’d happen upon a King right then and there. “Think they’re up to something?”
“Maybe. Or we are,” Danny said. “My cousin heard that Corporate’s thinking about another expansion.”
Barrier guys tended to have conversations like this whenever someone saw a King. There were always rumors that the settlement was getting crowded, and that we’d need more territory, but people whispered about it more when the worms started acting strange or gathering around the barrier. A lot of us figured that if they could see our bullets coming, they could probably see bigger fights coming too. Better than we could, anyway.
Thrush finished the bottle and threw it a ways over into the dirt. “Well, if Corporate’s really looking to fight, they’d better pay us more is all I have to say, because—”
We looked over. The young guy, Pete, had straightened up and spoken for the first time. “Taking more from them. It’s wrong.”
“How do you figure?” Danny asked with a small smile.
The young guy cleared his throat and looked around, like he wasn’t sure how loud to be about it. “They were here before us, the glyconids. This is their moon, not ours. We’re just thieves and murderers in their eyes. And in God’s. We never should’ve come and killed them in the first place.”
I watched Danny’s face harden, even though he was still smiling. I think anti-settlement folks had a way of annoying him more than most.
“Maybe. Maybe not . . .” Danny said, staring back. “But you’d think God would’ve stopped us if that were the case. Rained down holy punishment and the like.”
“Maybe he already has,” Pete replied. “You just don’t realize it.”
All of us had a good chuckle, but Danny wasn’t laughing. “Well, guess you ought to give up and hitch a shuttle out of here.”
“That’s right,” Pete replied seriously. “The second I have enough saved, I’m flying off the moon, and I think you should do the same.”
“Just fly off the moon . . . Why the hell not.” Danny licked his teeth clean. “And the plasma? Think you’ll fly off from that too?”
Pete shifted a little but, to his credit, didn’t look away. “I’ll . . . I’ll wean. I’ll find a way,” he insisted.
“Wean,” Danny replied, and the rest of us got quiet. “Okay.”
No one had much of anything to say to the kid about that.
“All right, all right, Petey.” Thrush waved his hand. “These guys appreciate the sermon, I’m sure, but it’s time to get moving. Go on. I’ll be there in a minute.” He turned back to us and spoke in a low voice. “Jesus Christ, that guy. Means well, but real maudlin drinker, if you know what I mean.”
“There’s one in every house,” Danny replied, trying to act unbothered, but I could tell he was still a little ruffled by what the kid said.
Thrush sipped from his canteen, rinsed his mouth, and spat. He thanked us for the drink and joined the other patrolmen, and we waited until their group rode off past a nearby ridge before Danny got on his bike and floated over next to me.
“Shift’s almost over. Going to stop by the stack?”
I knew I had to head home, that your mother was going to be upset if I missed another evening. But I thought about the time it would take to get to the barrier house, how much I’d drink, and then how long I’d have to let it get through my system before I got back home. I’d just barely catch everyone at bedtime, and it seemed like it was manageable.
“Sure.” I revved the bike and took off for the nearest gate.
The whole ride back, I kept thinking about what the kid said about punishment, and I found myself checking my mirrors more than usual for any signs of slithering in the vapors behind me.
• • • •
I could smell the stale plasma wafting, like a thick, rancid fog over the front yard, when we pulled in at the barrier house. Empty bottles littered the steps and the porch railing, and the inside of the place was messier than I’d seen it in weeks.
We found Cooper passed out on the couch, of course. Danny yelled in his ear and told him to get up.
“What time is it?” He sat up, coughing spit and blood that’d probably pooled in the back of his throat. His face was bone white, and it was pretty clear he’d been doing more than just resting up during our shift.
“It’s the end of the day. Jesus.”
“Oh man,” Cooper rubbed his eyes. “You guys been out back yet?”
We told him no. He stumbled to his feet and led us through the hall and to the lot behind the house. Some of the guys were gathered in the yard, and it wasn’t until they drew back that we saw what they were looking at.
A slimy, black skyworm lay stretched out on a table, its scaly, mucus-covered body pulled taut so that it was unfurled completely for all to see. Apparently, someone on the night shift caught a straggler and brought it back in with him to the house. The guys had tied it down real good with a tangle of construction wire, so it jerked here and there every few seconds, trying its best to slither out of its binding, but mostly, it just lay there, its scaly body rising and falling with each pained breath.
As I got closer, I could see that the guys had already stuck the worm’s sides with surgical tubes here and there; they trailed over and dripped bright red plasma into a basin nearby. I could practically feel the glow of its heat from how fresh it was.
I was no stranger to a draining. We’d done it all the time during the expansion. But out there, beyond the settlement, that kind of thing made sense. We didn’t have the luxury of filtered plasma, and we needed it if we were going to survive skirmishes with the clews. But this felt strange, seeing a skyworm tied up here outside one of our houses, just squirming there in the yard while we took its blood. It couldn’t have been more than a couple feet long, and I didn’t think I’d ever seen one that small—had to be a baby, if it wasn’t some kind of runt.
“What the hell?” Danny said. “You guys had this all day and didn’t call us?” He grabbed an empty jar and ladled just a little of the plasma, knowing it was a lot stronger than the regular stuff.
“You having any?” he asked.
I had to give it some thought.
One sip of that, and I’d be well over my daily allotment, and I’d have to wait longer to clean myself up before I went home. On the other hand, it wasn’t so often we’d have a draining, and I wasn’t likely to get this again anytime soon.
This was the way these things went all the time, you see. I was always in a negotiation with myself—both winning and losing, no matter the decision. In the end, it didn’t much matter what I thought, because there was usually only one direction these things tended to go.
“A small one,” I said. “Then I gotta leave.”
Danny poured a couple fingers’ worth and handed me the glass. I held it up to the waning sunlight, checking it for discoloration, but this was about as clean as you could get. The first swallow was like drinking scalding tea, with an aftertaste that was almost overpoweringly sweet, and my hands started to shake as I felt the plasma fill my belly with heat.
Danny took a drink too, and his mouth turned into a wet, crimson mess in seconds; I didn’t have to check to know mine was bleeding too.
“Strong,” I coughed and spat on the ground.
Danny staggered over to a chair. I got lightheaded, so I sat down next to him. I could feel the plasma rushing hot around my temples, and I started to hear something, like a light mewling, though I wasn’t sure where it was coming from.
“You hear that?” I asked Danny, and he shook his head. “I think it’s crying. Sounds almost like . . . like my kid.”
There was a flash of Danny lunging at me, and I startled, before realizing that it wasn’t real. This could happen every so often with pure plasma like this, hallucinatory possibility leaking out in strange ways. Our minds weren’t really built to see everything the worms saw, I guess.
Danny laughed at me at first, but then his eyes went heavy and half-closed. Most of the other guys settled around in parts of the yard too, all seeming to see things that had nothing to do with the rest of us. After a while, it felt like I was the only one that was really aware of myself in the yard, and I couldn’t shake the idea that the skyworm’s red eye was fixed on me.
“Sorry,” I whispered to the little guy. “Wish I could make you more comfortable.” The worm turned its face, pressed and bleeding under the stiff wires, and cried out, almost like it was screeching in my head. I shuddered before taking another sip from my glass. I could feel the weeps starting from the wetness on my cheek. The other guys were all dripping red down their faces too, but no one bothered to wipe it away.
This didn’t feel right.
I’d done this dozens of times, and I’d never felt anything like this. The baby worm’s crying echoed in my ears, and I looked around at the other guys, telling them we should loosen his wires. But no one heard me.
“I’m serious.” I got to my feet, trying to keep the yard from spinning.
The baby worm cried out again, and I felt a painful crackle in my brain. The urge to make the wailing stop only grew stronger.
I walked haltingly to the table and tore at the tubes and bindings. The skyworm wriggled gradually, until I had gotten it free of the wire. I picked it up with both arms, cradling it for a minute, waiting for its cries to grow softer. When it finally calmed, I loosened my hold and released it into the air, watching it slither into the darkening sky. Something about that made me overwhelmingly happy, watching the worm fly off, away from this mess—like for the first time, maybe in my life, I might’ve done something that wasn’t about me.
Except I hadn’t actually moved from my chair, and I was still staring at that little, red eye.
“Don’t you fucking do it,” Danny said, his cheeks covered in blood trails. He must’ve seen the echo of what I thought I did, or could have done, but who knows. I couldn’t figure out what was in my head, let alone his.
My hand started feeling stiff, like I couldn’t bend my fingers without them cracking, and when I looked down I could somehow see the bluish-purple plasma rot spreading from my fingers and toes and up each of my limbs. I was older, I think, because I didn’t recognize the veins and liver spots, the curl of white hair on my arm. A doctor I didn’t know was talking to me about my odds of survival if we amputated, and treatments they could try. Your mother was there too, beside me—her hair, a lot grayer, and I was pretty sure she’d been crying. I felt them put a mask over my face to knock me out, a bright surgical light shining in my eyes as I faded. And the next thing I knew, I was sitting in the kitchen, your mother feeding me with a spoon, and I started crying with frustration because I couldn’t do something as simple as feed myself.
Except I was still just sitting, looking at the little skyworm, at a loss for what the hell I’d felt just a few seconds earlier.
Was there something wrong with the plasma?
Was it because we drained one that was so young?
I was surrounded by blackness before I could let the thought have any purchase, and I wasn’t outside the barrier house, as far as I could tell. I think I was in the sky, looking down at the lunar landscape—the dome of the barrier thousands of miles below like a small puddle on a vast, dry rock. I noticed, just above the settlement, seven Kings swimming through the air, like giant serpents, bigger than any I’d ever seen in my life, gliding head-to-tail in a ring around the barrier.
There were sparks and bright pops as missiles and bombs took pieces out of those huge worms, and it looked like the sea of camera flashes that you see in stadiums during a big game. The Kings started to join, then, braiding together into a strange shape, like one giant super-worm, coiling and gathering momentum. They dropped into the dome and pushed through the burning sheen of the fiery energy field, scales aglow with open wounds as they drilled to the surface. There were millions of screams as the collective King worm impacted the ground, obliterating buildings and farms and schools and everything that had been gathered under that place.
I hadn’t really seen any of it, and I was still just sitting and looking at that little, red eye.
“I have to go.”
I realized, as I made my way back through the house to my bike, that Danny, the others, weren’t bleeding like I’d thought, and neither was I. Some of them called after me, but I knew I had to get home.
I have no recollection of how I got back to the farm that night. Don’t even recall getting on my bike, let alone our property, which is never a good sign. But I do remember standing outside the house and watching the lights in the windows, wanting to go inside so badly to see you, even though I knew I was in no shape for it. Instead, I dragged myself to the barn and bolted the doors shut so no one else could wander in.
You probably know it by now, but I spend nights out there when I’m not right. It’s not pretty for anyone, and I’d rather you never see it yourself. The vomiting comes first, whatever I ate that day mixed with the blood in my mouth. Then really mean shakes that make my head flop and my spine arch, like someone’s about to break me in two. I end up rolling around in the filth for minutes, or hours, I have no way of knowing, and I have trouble with my limbs, so I crawl around mostly on my belly, huffing sharply through my teeth, my nostrils encrusted with grit and puke.
That night, my head blurred with so many things that I can’t remember the half of it, even when I try my hardest. Different bursts of moments now and later, of life on the farm, at the barrier, of gunfire and cold bottles and dirt. Most of it, maybe all of it, were flickers and shadows of events that I knew would never happen, but other parts felt like memories of the future that I had one point known and forgotten, even though, saying it now, I know it makes no sense.
And then I saw something that scared me so deeply that I wept.
I slammed my head against the dirt, trying to make it stop. After what felt like an endless burning in every part of my body, I eventually, thankfully, passed out.
Somewhere, I heard the screaming of a baby skyworm go quiet.
• • • •
When I woke in the glowing darkness just before daybreak, I cleaned myself up at the hose and buried my sick. I changed into my spare clothes from my pack and shuffled into the kitchen. I didn’t have to wait long for your mother to come downstairs, because she always got ready for the day before anyone else.
I clasped my hands together and looked at her across the kitchen table.
“I’m drinking again.”
She didn’t seem angry or upset, or even surprised now that I think back on it, just tired. “Okay. How long?”
“Few months now.”
She went to the counter and started boiling a pot for our coffee. “What’s your plan, then?” she asked.
Normally, this was the part where I would’ve promised to wean, where I’d tell her I would clean out my system and start fresh, maybe reduce intake to when I was on patrol and really needed it, but nothing in the barrier house or around you guys—something like that.
But I’d seen too many things with the plasma the night before. Times where the worms killed us in gruesome onslaughts—other paths where we spread across the moon and consumed every last one of them instead. A million different ways that things wouldn’t work out, no matter the particular road, whether that be weeks, or months, or years from now.
But whenever it came to my life and what lay ahead, there was really only one possibility that came into focus when I followed the curve of the most probable path.
No matter what I promised, or how hard I tried, or how many times I started or stopped, or whether I was happy or sad or angry or bored, I’d still be drinking, in the end—until piece after piece of me fell off with rot, and my heart and my lungs, inevitably, came to a stop. And even though that wasn’t the thing I saw that scared me most, it was enough that I couldn’t make your mother the promises I would have otherwise.
“I don’t know,” I said.
Your mother held in her tears because we heard you bounding down the steps before you reached the kitchen, and then you came in, sleepy-eyed and smiling, asking if you heard your daddy.
“Oh hey there, little man.” I bent over and scooped you up. “Gosh, I missed you. Feel like we haven’t seen each other in forever.”
You squeezed your skinny little arms around my neck and nuzzled the stubble on my cheek with your face. “Going back out?”
“Nah, I’m taking time off,” I said. “There’s nothing good out there for me anyway.”
Your mother and I sat with you at the table, sipping our coffee while you ate. You talked with your mouth full about school and what you were learning about the lunar ecosystems, and we just listened and nodded and took you in. And when you were done, and your mother said she wanted some time alone to clean up, I asked if you wanted to walk with me outside.
We wandered for a bit, stopping to rake some leaves and to fix up your tire swing, which I guess had gotten a little loose without my noticing. I thought about talking to you, then, about what was going on with me, even just a kid version of it. But I couldn’t figure out how to say it or where to start.
I’ve heard that when you’re at your lowest after plasma, you’re supposed to write a letter to the person you love most. People say it focuses your intentions and reminds you later about what you felt. But because I can’t write for shit, I’ve logged this recording instead, and I’m hoping maybe this might help you understand some of what was going on, and why we made the decisions we did.
You see, that night, after the draining, when I saw all those potential paths in front of me, the thing I saw that scared me more than anything wasn’t the worms, or the rot, or me falling apart because of my own doing.
It was you.
Because when I followed the curve of the most probable path, the one that came into focus out of all of those possibilities, I saw you as a young man, still on this moon and on this farm. I saw someone put a gun in your hand, and later, a bottle. And you took them both because, well, that’s just the way things happen here.
And one bottle led to another, and another led to the next. And I watched your bright eyes slowly fill with fear and your face get stretched and thin from working the barrier. I saw you hiding from your own family, scurrying around the house to put away your empties. And on bad nights, you crawled on your belly in some dark space. And there was nothing I could do to help you, and it hurt my heart.
I realized, at that moment, that there was still a sliver of a way—because a path can’t be probable if it becomes impossible, because you can’t be poisoned like me if you’re not here at all. After that night, I decided that I’d count every penny we’d saved and squirrel away more in the months to come. Your mother and I agreed that we’d work toward buying tickets for a shuttle, so we could send you both to go live with her folks on one of the stations instead. With some time and some patience, as you know, we did just that. And by the time you hear this, whenever your mom decides you’re ready, you’ll be millions of miles from this moon, and better off for it, I think.
I know I probably told you I’d meet you and your mom out there, in the stars, eventually, and it’s not wrong, you know, to hope that I might still get clean and get there someday too. But you can’t spend your life waiting for someone like me. Chances are, I haven’t learned to leave the plasma behind, and I’m still smiling with a closed mouth and wiping my eyes with a dark handkerchief, like always. I’m probably right where you left me, in the dirt, and that’s okay.
Having seen what I’ve seen, this was probably where I was always going to be.
That morning we walked around the farm together, I don’t know if you remember, but after we talked some more, I actually brought you around to the back of the barn. I picked up the shovel and didn’t have to dig long before I uncovered one of the pits where I stored my empties, the bottles all piled on one another and coated in soil. You asked me what it was.
“My mess,” I told you.
Without saying anything, you went to the house and came back with the refuse bin and started picking up the bottles and dumping them, like it was the most ordinary thing in the world. You kept talking about whether we were going to take a trip to town so you could look for a new mitt, and you seemed unbothered by the piercing, clinking sound of each bottle that dropped into the bin with the others.
After a while, I started to let your voice drown out the sound of the bottles, and I was light and untroubled, if just for a time, because of you.